This is Part 22; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
Ocean waves rolled gently along a virtual beach on an outgoing tide, with seagulls squabbling on the sand and a soundtrack to match. The air had a salty tang, and the thick carpet looked enough like sand that it would have taken a close inspection to tell the difference. If the sole inhabitant of the spaceship’s rec room had gotten out of his lounge chair, he could easily have imagined that he was walking on real sand; the carpet’s texture created an almost perfect illusion.
But as usual, nearly all of Woods’ attention was on the tablet in his hand. Four months had gone by since his accidental discovery that he could communicate via telepathy with an extraterrestrial creature taken from Europa, and he was still trying to work out just how the alien language functioned. With no background in linguistics, he was baffled more often than not. His subconscious mind had taken up a fair amount of the slack, however, converting some of the language’s visual images into what sounded like spoken English in his thoughts.
“The base layer of the language consists almost entirely of mathematical metaphors,” Woods said out loud, summing up the observations that he had been entering in his tablet. There also was a complicated overlay that looked like a graceful, flowing calligraphy, but by now he had given up on ever understanding any of that. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Last month, he had laboriously repeated an image of unbroken ice—which meant zero, the unknown, and probably a few other things too—in connection with parts of the calligraphy, using the ice-image to convey the question “What is this?”
About all he had gleaned from that tedious exercise was that the alien’s name was not in fact Tiny Leaf, as he had thought it to be. Rather, if he’d understood the translations with any degree of accuracy (which was certainly debatable), it was Six and a Half, Added to the Thirty-Second Part of the Whole that is Forty-Nine, Divided by Seven, Added to Three, Divided by Seven, Added to Four.
His overtaxed brain had rebelled at that and just kept on translating the name as Tiny Leaf anyway. Maybe all those numbers signified a genealogy, some kind of tribal identification, or the region where a particular family group lived. That went far beyond Woods’ realm of expertise, and he had no problem with leaving it for the linguists on Earth to sort out.
Assuming, of course, that he could find an effective way besides telepathy for the linguists and other scientists to communicate with Tiny Leaf. She had no eyes and apparently formed images of her surroundings by way of sonar, emitting high-pitched squeaks like a bat navigating through a jungle on a dark night. Although that ruled out teaching her to read by conventional means, surely a communication device suited to her needs could be built.
“Something with raised symbols,” Woods said, thinking out loud again; that would allow Tiny Leaf to identify them by touch. How to get started with such a project? He had no experience designing or building communication devices, but the ship had a capable engineer. Maybe Hioki, despite having shown some reluctance to discuss the telepathic images, could be persuaded to help. Even if he had been intimidated by the captain’s skeptical remarks or was a skeptic himself, Hioki might be willing to look into the matter further.
On the wall screen, the tide had just started to turn when Woods exited the program and left the room. He made his way along the ship’s main corridor and soon found Hioki in his small office just off the main engineering area. Evidently Hioki had spent more time than usual styling his long hair, which stuck out all over in elaborate spikes.
Stepping into the office, Woods got directly to the point, not having thought of any suitable small talk. “I believe it’s possible to communicate with the creatures who live on Europa by simply teaching them to use a waterproof numeric keypad, with both the input and output in raised symbols. Much of their language is made up of arithmetic-based metaphors.”
“Don’t say such things with the door open!” Hioki hissed, as a look of panic flashed across his face. Jumping up from the desk chair so fast that it almost toppled over, he shut the door before Woods even had time to completely process what he had said.
“It shouldn’t be all that hard to do,” Woods continued, without any clue as to what might explain Hioki’s odd reaction. “The technology exists, surely. We could…”
“We,” Hioki was quick to interrupt, putting strong emphasis on the word, “are not going to do anything. And if you have the least bit of sense, you’ll forget that you ever thought about it.”